As a child growing up in Blackburn, near Manchester, UK, Ilyas Vali dreamed of owning a dog. He wanted a German shepherd, but in his community keeping dogs was frowned on for religious reasons. It took nearly 40 years, but Vali finally found a hack: he bought a pet wolf (well, a Saarloos, a cross between a German shepherd and a European wolf).
Clearly not one to blindly accept rules passed across generations, it's no surprise that Vali is today one of the main drivers of a new technology innovation network that has the potential to disrupt the world of transport - and intellectual property.
The story of this network, rLoop, begins in June 2015, when billionaire Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, threw out an engineering challenge for the design of a Hyperloop prototype. If realised, the Hyperloop transport system would send people-carrying pods hurtling through near-vacuum tubes at more than l,OOOkm/h. A 600km trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, would take 30 minutes instead of six hours. London to Glasgow would become a 40-minute commute.
Musk's competition was open to anyone with an internet connection, and the science behind the idea was posted online. The first challenge was to design a pod. Universities and big companies like Richard Branson's Virgin formed teams and got to work. One of the more unusual teams to assemble was rLoop, an online community of engineers who hung out on Reddit (hence the name rLoop) and thought it would be fun to give the Hyperloop challenge a try.
Like a swarm of virtual bees, engineers from around the world descended on the rLoop hive, volunteering their time and knowledge, from students to senior aerospace engineers at NASA. Some spent hours or days at a time on the project. Others flew in for a few minutes, never to be heard from again (so-called 'shooting stars'). The members of the rLoop team never met and their contributions were immediately absorbed into the wider, open -source design. What kept them united was the thrill of the challenge and a desire to change the world through innovation. 'We are engineers,' Vali, co-founder of rLoop and a cybersecurity consultant, told Forward magazine. 'We want to get to the moon and to Mars. We develop technology to advance humanity.'
What began as a handful of enthusiasts with an Excel spreadsheet began to grow organically. Although the structure remained flat, those who were most passionate and who had the most time to give rose up into leadership roles, managing various subsystems of the project. The hive communicated and designed using software like Slack, Google's enterprise tools, ANSYS and Autodesk Fusion 360 (some of these companies became key rLoop sponsors).
'It's difficult to explain it now that we've done it,' says Vali. 'But think of any problem as a solution that needs to be invented. Now "pixelate" it. You can pick up any "pixel" and that becomes a component of the project...a microtask. You can assign that pixel to any individual interested in working on it.'
One pixel at a time the picture emerged. The rLoop team put together its Hyperloop prototype design and submitted it to SpaceX. Then, something amazing began to happen. In a field of more than a thousand submissions, rLoop's design sped into the top 100, and then the top 30 - and was eventually one of a dozen to be chosen to advance from the virtual realm into the physical.
It was the ultimate underdog success story. Engineers from the losing teams rushed to join rLoop. A sponsor, TE Connectivity, offered the team an R&D centre in Silicon Valley. An NGO was formed to handle the procurement of materials. Components were built in 11 countries - at times by students who traded manual labour for lessons - and shipped to the R&D centre for assembly. For the first time, members of rLoop began to meet in real life.
A prototype pod was built, new technology was realised and the rLoop team scooped up prestigious innovation awards. What made its achievement all the more incredible was that, while its competitors had raised hundreds of millions of dollars, rLoop had found sponsors for or crowdfunded its entire operation, from design to welding, keeping costs down to around a quarter of a million dollars.
Three years later, the rLoop network is home to more than 1,300 engineers from 59 countries. Work on the Hyperloop continues with efforts to build a much -needed test track, which requires fresh capital. But rLoop is now also designing a futuristic human flight machine for Boeing (the rFlight project), along with a new Facebook-like network (rBridge) to unite innovators across the world, from classrooms to offices, and to guide their innovations from concept to construction. This is rLoop's answer to what it sees as decades of decline in global innovation.
In the summer of 2018, rLoop became a corporation, a necessity to facilitate its new ambitions and raise the required capital. It uses its own token system to reward members, based on a 'reputation value' that recognises active contributions and can decay through inactivity. And, interestingly, the organisation is relying on blockchain technology to lock down the work of every 'cognitive contributor' on every pixel of every project. Asked whether this is an IP revolution, Vali doesn't hesitate with his answer: 'Absolutely.'
At its simplest, a blockchain is a decentralised database, or ledger, that is shared across a global network of computers. Long, complex codes and constant checks by the network make it virtually impossible to alter records once they are added. The slightest change creates a new code, which no longer matches the codes held across the network. The only way to make a key fit a million keyholes is to not alter the key.
In this way, every contribution to rLoop is a 'record' kept on an ever-expanding database. In its founding document, rLoop explains this system as follows: 'Using distributed ledger technology, we can leverage the immutability of the blockchain to establish proof of authorship, as well as to manage the licence, transfer and acquisition of intellectual property on -chain...Once it becomes possible to account for every piece along the chain of creation, we can measure the performance outcome of work contributed, as well as the economic use and impact, and potential future rewards can be based on participation on a particular element.'
Vali admits that one of the greatest challenges to this new model has been scaling up. Collaborating on a futuristic design is very different to registering IP, which is required to unlock investment, which in turn allows a creator to build prototypes. 'We are struggling to find lawyers to create this new idea of locking IP,' Vali says. 'It's still early days and discussions are ongoing, but we believe this is the way forward.'
The future of work
For Vali, rLoop represents the 'future of work', where anyone can log on to a global network, select a piece of work that needs doing (those 'pixels' again), have that contribution recorded and receive a reward in accordance with the value of that assignment. If the system works, there would be no disputes about authorship because everything would be recorded on the blockchain. rLoop says it has had no disputes around IP and, in fact, some contributors have been pleasantly surprised to be rewarded for work they did two or three years ago.
As exciting as they are, however, blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies are still earning trust and, in some cases, proving volatile. So, for the moment, rLoop's vision is racing ahead of reality. And a part of its learning journey has included negotiating the complexities around legal jurisdictions and the costs of protecting IP, which is a crucial link in the funding chain.
But, like Vali and his wolf, rLoop is not in the business of letting reality stand in the way. Its members call themselves 'fearless reality breakers'. With the Hyperloop, they found a way to sidestep huge engineering design, labour and manufacturing costs by crowdsourcing the project to a loosely tied but highly motivated team. rLoop hopes that, in much the same way, it will find a new method and a new mindset to tackle IP and other legal issues.
'It's time to realise something new,' Vali says. 'Who is going to be the first organisation or person in the legal realm stepping forward with a new spade to dig into the ground? Because this is a whole new world.'
New Kids on the blockchain - Graeme Moore says rLoop won't be alone in employing the blockchain for IP
In coming years, rloop aims to use blockchain technology to facilitate the establishment of arguably the world's first and foremost DEO (decentralised exponential organisation). This presents its own unique set of challenges. By moving to blockchain, however, it is able to forgo traditional formal business hierarchies and move more quickly and efficiently through each phase of its own development and through its engineering projects - for example, via the use of smart contracts. From an IP perspective, using blockchain in this way can help to maintain an accurate, secure and transparent record of authorship and ownership, which is critically important in a decentralised and diverse organisation such as rloop. Other organisations, decentralised or not, may well soon be following in rloop's footsteps.
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